Beijing flexes missile muscles
By David Isenberg

China's test firing of a new air-to-air missile, the Russian-made R-77 (known in the West as the AA-12 Adder), in late June is causing accelerated deliveries of weapons previously ordered by Taiwan as well as possible new US arms sales to the island.

The test, first reported in the July 1 Washington Times, marked the first time that China had tested the missiles. They were launched by two Chinese Su-30 fighters at target drones and scored hits.

The R-77 missile ("AMRAAMSKI"), researched and manufactured by the Russian Vympel State Machinery Design Bureau, is similar to and in some respects equal to the United States' AIM-120 AMRAAM (advanced medium-range air-to-air missile). The R-77 is in service with India's upgraded MiG-21s and in Malaysia.

Like the AMRAAM, it is a "beyond visual range" missile, meaning the pilot doesn't have to see the target. The R-77 has an active radar finder and a maximum range of 90-100 kilometers (50km more than the AMRAAM), carries a 30-kilogram high-explosive warhead, and flies at four times the speed of sound.

The ability to engage air targets at beyond visual range holds obvious advantages, as does being able to field an active radar-guided weapon. Unlike a semi-active missile, an active weapon does not require the launch aircraft to illuminate the target during the terminal phase of the engagement. With an active missile, the launch aircraft can also either "bug out" of the engagement or launch against another target aircraft.

After the R-77 is launched, it depends on radar on board the aircraft for mid-course commands. When it is 20km from its target the warhead's radar starts working and the missile tracks the target automatically.

The missiles are the result of a deal China signed with Russia in 2000 in order to arm Sukhoi Su-30MK two-seater multi-role fighters it bought. The Chinese air force probably will use the new missiles and planes to replace the less-advanced R-27 now equipping the country's Su-27s. Unlike the Adder, the R-27 has to have its target illuminated by the launching aircraft.

According to a report by Aviation Week & Space Technology, China will use the Adder to develop its own active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile that could be fielded in the latter half of this decade. While the program, called Project 129 or R129, will draw on critical technologies from the R-77, it will have an indigenously developed airframe. It also will be coupled with a Chinese propulsion unit.

Yet the R-77 is not the weapon that will single-handedly upset the military balance, as some in the media portray it to be.

For one thing, the R-77 is hardly a surprise. Peng Chin-ming, director of the operations bureau of Taiwan's Air Force General Headquarters, said test-firing was "long expected by the air force, which has since kept a close watch on the situation".

Taiwan also has its own capabilities in this area. For example, Taiwan's locally developed IDFs (indigenous defense fighters) are equipped with TC-2 missiles that are guided by active radar and have a maximum range of 60km and a maximum speed of Mach 4.

Taiwan's French-made Mirage 2000-5 jet fighters are equipped with MICA missiles that are also guided by active radar. The speed and range of MICA missiles can reach up to 50km and Mach 3.5, respectively.

In addition, in the future Taiwan will take delivery of US-made AMRAAMs, which will be carried by the F-16 jet fighter. Taiwan bought 120 of the missiles, made by the Raytheon Co, in September 2000. This marks a change from the previous US administration policy that stated that Taiwan could take delivery only in the future, for fear of triggering a regional arms race. Until now the missiles had been stored in Guam.

Taiwan is not the only country on which the United States has imposed restrictions for sale of the AMRAAM. When it sold F/A-18 fighters to Thailand in 1996 it required similar restrictions.

According to the Washington Times, the AA-12 missile deployment will not be mentioned in the Pentagon's long-delayed annual report on the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. The report has been complete for several months but its release was held up by Pentagon officials who wanted to avoid offending Beijing during the May visit to the United States of Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao. The report is to be released in the next several days, officials said.

Taiwanese officials announced they have prepared "a comprehensive plan" to take delivery of the missiles. "The air force has mapped out a comprehensive plan for the delivery of the AIM-120 missiles but we are unable to disclose the timing for the shipment," a Defense Ministry official said.

And, according to a report in the current issue of Defense News, the US government has quietly agreed in principle to allow more arms sales to Taiwan, a pledge that goes beyond its April 2001 promise for submarines, destroyers and surveillance aircraft. The new pledge emerged from talks conducted under a year-old, lower-profile process for providing weapons to Taiwan. Specific deals will be negotiated as Taipei submits written requests for Apache attack helicopters and other systems.

Predictably, China denounced the transfer of AMRAAMs to Taiwan. "We firmly oppose any country interfering in China's internal affairs, or selling weapons to Taiwan under any excuse," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Beijing said.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Jul 10, 2002

Russia joins the China game (Jul 9, '02)

Russia now the world's leading arms exporter (Jul 3, '02)

All eyes on Sino-Russian sub deal (Jul 2, '02)


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